George W. and J. Peterman, Philosophically Speaking

In his controversial new book, What Happened: Inside the Bush White House and Washington’s Culture of Deception, Scott McClellan recalls when he took his first peek behind the metaphorical curtain to see the real G.W. Bush. Overhearing Bush discuss rumors about his past cocaine use, he heard him say, “the truth is I honestly don’t remember whether I tried [cocaine] or not.”

For McClellan, this created a philosophical puzzle he could not ignore, a clash of firmly held beliefs that together “didn’t make a lot of sense.” On the one hand, he doubted that anyone could “simply not remember whether or not they used an illegal substance like cocaine.” On the other, he believed that W. “isn’t the kind of person to flat-out lie.” Something had to give, either in McClellan’s understanding of his boss, or perhaps in his understanding of people, in general. Or both. Judging from the advance publicity about his book, McClellan solved the puzzle, but not without stumbling into one of the more puzzling (and jarring) conclusions from post-Marxist theories of ideology and subjectivity—that the self is an illusion. There is no one, really, behind each of our curtains.

For Seinfeld fans, this is old Urban Sombrero. If you took the stories, images and lore in his clothing catalogues at face value, Elaine’s boss, J. Peterman, lived a life filled with adventure, insight, and entrepreneurial brilliance. But his life—his self—was actually empty. Elaine had every opportunity to see this—she herself helped write the dazzling catalogue-copy that made Peterman seem larger than life. But she probably never quite understood, even after a trip to her boss’s bare-floor, blank-wall apartment, how Peterman epitomized the vanishing, illusory post-modern self articulated by theorists like Jacques Lacan and Slavoj Zizek. She probably never realized, as Norah Martin puts it in her contribution to Seinfeld and Philosophy, “there is no Mr. Peterman beyond the catalogue narratives and the dashing exterior.”

McClellan was W’s Elaine. As White House press secretary, he too was paid to sell images, concepts and stories to the public that would flatter his boss and, by extension, those who admired him. But with that conversation about possible cocaine use, when he first observed “Bush convincing himself to believe something that probably was not true and that, deep down, he knew was not true,” he saw the emptiness behind the curtain. McClellan does not say that Bush was lying, for lying presupposes the very metaphysics of self-hood that gives way to Lacanian and Zizekian analysis. A liar knows the truth that he conceals, so it is impossible for him to convince himself that a lie about himself is true without first forgetting who he is and what he knows—without, that is, becoming someone else (in W’s case, McClellan says, out of political expediency). Yep, it’s kinda creepy and confusing. That’s the likely reason why McClellan took some years to formulate his thoughts about “what happened” inside the Bush White House.

McClellan’s many detractors call him a sensationalist and opportunist. Not very penetratingly, Bob Dole (who himself knows a few things about salesmanship) publicized an email to McClellan calling him a “miserable creature” using his former job to cash in. Maybe. But working your way through a metaphysical illusion on which your very career rests takes time. And, contra Dole’s sneer that McClellan lacked “guts” to criticize his boss on the job, it takes guts to look squarely at the paradox of subjectivity. As Martin discusses, it’s not obvious how to steer around a destructive cynicism (if not nihilism, I would add) about the nature of our selves and make peace with our own vanishing ideological selves.

Our very language, for starters, props up the illusion. McClellan trips over it here, for if W’s self-proclaimed “truth” about himself changes with the political wind, then there isn’t any stable, enduring W there, “deep down”, behind the talking points and campaign themes of the moment. The very same words pop up in B.Dole’s otherwise flaccid and ad hominem tirade: “You’re a hot ticket now,” he fumes at McClellan, “but don’t you, deep down, feel like a total ingrate?”

I bet that McClellan actually feels pretty good about the book he wrote. Whether he knows it or not, he’s wrestled with some curious and difficult philosophical questions about what people and selves really are (or aren’t). And there’s definitely not anything wrong with that.

The following is excerpted from Norah Martin’s “Peterman and the Ideological Mind: Paradoxes of Subjectivity” in Seinfeld and Philosophy: A Book About Everything and Nothing, Open Court Publishing Company, 2000, pp. 139–47.

Of all the characters on Seinfeld, none takes himself more seriously than Mr. Peterman. Yet he knows he’s not real. He knows his whole life is the fiction in the catalogue. After all, he needs to buy Kramer’s life stories because his life is only the one described in the catalogue, a life we know has been invented by people like Elaine. Mr. Peterman is completely a character. Every mundane experience he does have is narrated by him as though it was right out of his catalogue (as when he sees Sue Ellen Mishkie disappear into an elevator wearing what was to become the “Gatsby Swingtop”). For him, every experience is a catalogue experience. Peterman knows none of it is real, yet he does not adopt a cynical distance. He is, ironically, committed to the fiction. Strangely enough, Mr. Peterman is the most realistic character on Seinfeld. In him we can see the truth of subjectivity.

Mr. Peterman is empty. He is nothing more than the narratives from his catalogue that make his life ‘the way he wishes it were.’ The catalog is filled with vignettes from his fictional life, and when he needs stories about his actual life, he has to buy someone else’s, for he has none. Mr. Peterman’s emptiness becomes sadly clear when we visit his apartment with Elaine and find nothing but a few pieces of plain furniture, blank walls and bare surfaces. When we pull aside the proverbial curtain, that is, we don’t find the pathetic humbug but rather nothing at all. There is no Mr. Peterman beyond the catalogue narratives and the dashing exterior. He may accumulate things like JFK’s golf clubs and a piece of the Duke and Duchess of Windsor’s wedding cake, but that doesn’t make him anything underneath.

In Lacanian and Zizekian terms, this makes Peterman the subject par excellence who reveals a fundamental truth—the fundamental truth, of us all. While we identify with the situations in which Jerry, Elaine, George, and Kramer find themselves, we also despise these characters (even while secretly loving them). But Mr. Peterman is us.

The typical Cartesian or Kantian subject, the self of the modern era, is conceived more like the Wizard of Oz—great and powerful on the outside, but really small and pathetic behind the curtain—Mr. Peterman is more like the Wicked Witch of the West. Once the show or fiction is gone, there is literally nothing left but the clothing. In Mr. Peterman we see that the ‘inner self’ or ‘real me’ is nothing but an illusion, a primordial lie. We need to believe this illusion, but it is just that. There is nothing at the center, as we can see if we look carefully at the notion of subjectivity that emerges in the tradition that begins with Descartes.

The subject, the one who has experiences and thoughts, is characterized by Lacan, Hegel, and Zizek as fundamentally a lack or ‘the self-identity of negativity.’ The subject is ultimately empty because it is not and cannot itself be an object of experience as it is constituted by the predominant philosophical tradition stemming from Descartes and Kant. In this tradition, we find an empirical self that we experience, a ‘me’ with various characteristics, but the ‘I’ who is that ‘me’ has no experienceable qualities, no determinations. What is determinateless or indeterminate is nothing. The self that we know, then, the ‘me’, could be seen as a masquerade, as self ‘put on’. Usually when we think of the self as a mask or masquerade we imagine that there is a true or real self behind the various masks, under the various costumes. But this is an ideological illusion, an inversion. Ultimately, there is nothing behind the mask or under the costume and so we are left a pure void, just as the Wicked Witch turned out to be nothing in herself—just a small pile of crumpled clothing and a hat. The ‘real self’ as a coherent, unified subject underneath the show is a fiction. There is only the show itself.

Jerry seems to see this fact only too well. In the episode in which Peterman buys Kramer’s stories, “The Van Buren Boys,” Jerry dates a woman, Ellen, who appears to be perfect—attractive, funny, smart—yet who is supposedly, in her essence, “a loser.” Jerry is the only one who can’t see this essence, the only one who operates solely on the level of appearance. George asks him, “Are you looking deep down at the person underneath?” and Jerry responds, “No, I’m being as superficial as I possibly can.” Of course, that’s all Jerry can be. Unlike Peterman, Ellen has a ‘real self’ beneath the surface to which Jerry is blind. Kramer and George, however, can see her ‘loser’ essence and construct an intervention to get Jerry to see the truth. Jerry, confused, feels as if he is in a Twilight Zone-episode. For him, the belief in this ideological illusion in which everyone else seems to be participating makes no sense. He lives in a world that is the same, yet different, from that of his friends, much like the experience of looking in a camera obscura. While George and Kramer believe in the myth of the coherent subject that underlies all experiences, Jerry can’t seem to recognize that there is no such thing, or if there is, he can’t see it.

Peterman demonstrates that there is no such thing and reflects our own situation. The ‘I’ is experiences as emptiness and as desire—as dissatisfaction. This constant dissatisfaction creates what Marx calls “the proliferation of needs.” Rather than recognizing that we lack, we constantly strive to “make our lives as we wish they were.” The clothes in this case really do make the man (or woman). The ironist recognizes this but, necessarily, lives in the fiction and, as a result, is much better off than the cynic. Cynicism leaves one in an endless loop wondering why no one seems to understand the contradictions he sees. The ironist does understand this and also understands her commitment to the fiction. The cynic is frustrated that it doesn’t make sense to participate in the fiction. The ironist simply smiles at it.

George Reisch is the series editor for Open Court’s Popular Culture and Philosophy series. He received a Ph.D. in History and Philosophy of Science from the University of Chicago in 1995 and teaches philosophy at the School for Continuing Studies at Northwestern University. His book, How the Cold War Transformed Philosophy of Science, was published by Cambridge University Press in 2005.

Norah Martin is Associate Professor of Philosophy at the University of Portland. Her research involves using feminist ethics and epistemology to examine issues in psychiatric theory and practice.